Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Timothy Snyder on the War on History

In "The War on History was a War on Democracy," Snyder compares Russian memory laws, which we're quick to recognize as propaganda, to American under Trump:  

By March 1932, hundreds of thousands of people were already starving to death in Soviet Ukraine, the breadbasket of the country. Rapid industrialization was financed by destroying traditional agrarian life. The five-year plan had brought “dekulakization,” the deportation of peasants deemed more prosperous than others, and “collectivization,” the appropriation of agrarian land by the state. A result was mass famine. . . . Mentions of the famine included an awkwardly long list of regions, downplaying the specificity of the Ukrainian tragedy. The famine was presented as a result of administrative mistakes by a neutral state apparatus. Everyone was a victim, and so no one was. In a 2008 letter to his Ukrainian counterpart, the Russian president Dmitri Medvedev flattened the event into an act of repression “against the entire Soviet people.” The next year Medvedev established the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests, a panel of politicians, military officials and state-approved historians ostensibly tasked with defending the official history of the Soviet Union’s role in World War II. It did little in practice, but it did establish an important principle: that history was what served Russia’s national interests, and that all else was revisionism. . . . These Russian policies belong to a growing international body of what are called “memory laws”: government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past. Such measures work by asserting a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship.

Last November, five days after the latest Russian memory law emerged from a presidential committee, the American president, Donald Trump, created the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. Its “1776 Report,” published just as Trump’s term came to an end in January, defined its task as the “restoration of American education.” The report responded to the 1619 Project, an attempt to bring the history of slavery closer to the center of national narratives, which this magazine published in 2019. The commission’s report reproduced the structure of Russian memory policy, acknowledging a historical evil and then relativizing it in a shocking manner. Slavery was discussed, but only as one among numerous “challenges to America’s principles,” a list that also included “progressivism” and “identity politics.” . . .

 Several states are applying these memory laws in their school systems:

This spring, memory laws arrived in America. Republican state legislators proposed dozens of bills designed to guide and control American understanding of the past. As of this writing, five states (Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma) have passed laws that direct and restrict discussions of history in classrooms. The Department of Education of a sixth (Florida) has passed guidelines with the same effect. Another 12 state legislatures are still considering memory laws. . . . The Idaho law is the most Kafkaesque in its censorship: It affirms freedom of speech and then bans divisive speech. The Iowa law executes the same totalitarian pirouette. The Tennessee and Texas laws go furthest in specifying what teachers may and may not say. In Tennessee teachers must not teach that the rule of law is “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.” Nor may they deny the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, words that Thomas Jefferson presumably never intended to be part of an American censorship law. The Idaho law mentions Critical Race Theory; the directive from the Florida school board bans it in classrooms. The Texas law forbids teachers from requiring students to understand the 1619 Project. It is a perverse goal: Teachers succeed if students do not understand something. But the most common feature among the laws, and the one most familiar to a student of repressive memory laws elsewhere in the world, is their attention to feelings. Four of five of them, in almost identical language, proscribe any curricular activities that would give rise to “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

For me, this is an over there problem that I foolishly assume won't become a here problem, despite the Trumpism of Ford's measures in the past few years. It's vital that we fight the restrictions there as we watch for warning signs here. Snyder explains why:

History is not therapy, and discomfort is part of growing up. As a teacher, I cannot exclude the possibility, for example, that my non-Jewish students will feel psychological distress in learning how little the United States did for Jewish refugees in the 1930s. I know from my experience teaching the Holocaust that it often causes psychological discomfort for students to learn that Hitler admired Jim Crow and the myth of the Wild West. Teachers in high schools cannot exclude the possibility that the history of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression will make some non-Black students uncomfortable. The new memory laws invite teachers to self-censor, on the basis of what students might feel — or say they feel. The memory laws place censorial power in the hands of students and their parents. It is not exactly unusual for white people in America to express the view that they are being treated unfairly; now such an opinion could bring history classes to a halt. . . . 

The memory laws arise in a moment of cultural panic when national politicians are suddenly railing against “revisionist” teachings. In Russia, the supposed revisionists are people who write critically about Stalin, or honestly about the Second World War. In the United States, the “revisionists” are people who write about race. In both cases, “revisionism” tends to mean the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable. . . . The moments when the new laws do venture into specificity are illuminating. “Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards,” the Florida Department of Education’s new policy states, “include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” This is a striking repetition of the rhetorical tactic of the Russian memory law of 2014: In both, the crimes of the Nazis are deployed to silence a history of suffering — in Russia to deter criticism of the Stalin era, in Florida to forbid education about racism. And in both cases, the measures in question actually make the Holocaust impossible to understand. . . . If it is illegal in Florida to teach about systemic racism, then aspects of the Holocaust relevant for young Americans go untaught. German race laws drew from the precedent set by Jim Crow in the United States. But since Jim Crow is systemic racism, having to do with American society and law, the subject would seem to be banned in Florida schools.

Facts do tend to be controversial. It would be controversial to note, for example, that the Tulsa massacre was one of many such instances of racial cleansing in the United States, or that its consequences are manifest in Oklahoma to this day. It would be controversial to note that racial pogroms, alongside whippings, shootings and lynchings, are traditional tools to intimidate Black Americans and to keep them away from the ballot box. In most cases, the new American memory laws have been passed by state legislatures that, in the same session, have passed laws designed to make voting more difficult. The memory management enables the voter suppression. The history of denying Black people the vote is shameful. This means that it is less likely to be taught where teachers are mandated to protect young people from feeling shame. . . . Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is infantilizing: We should not have to feel any negative emotions; difficult subjects should be kept from us. Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws’ portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so. We start by saying we are not racists. Yes, that felt nice. And now we should make sure that no one says anything that might upset us. The fight against racism becomes the search for a language that makes white people feel good. The laws themselves model the desired rhetoric. We are just trying to be fair. We behave neutrally. We are innocent.


Andy in Germany said...

I think, ironically, that the US and Canada may be able to learn from Germany there. The country faced its pas head on, and worked hard to teach it accurately and begin a future in another direction.

It made for uncomfortable history lessons but it means people understand what happened and why our current electoral system exists.

I also noticed a change in Germany, a watershed happened in 2004, when the world cup came. Before then German flags were incredibly unpopular, and it was seen as almost bad taste to have one, a sign that you were an extreme right nationalist, but that year it all changed and being German seemed to become more acceptable.

Now anyone of my generation or below is certainly aware of the dangers of national socialism and to make sure we keep our society free, but also very happy to be a modern German, confident in their identity and also in their identity as Europeans, which is an important factor.

They see the NS period as something that happened in the past, so they can't take responsibility for it, nor do they feel any collective guilt for it, but they can take responsibility for making sure it doesn't happen again.

Bill Malcolm said...


Memory law must be the new right wing Repug words, or those of its critics, for state-sponsored historical revisionism. The NYT, which grandly bills itself as the newspaper of record, has been practising revisionism for ever and a day, but on Democrat Party and US federal bureaucracy foreign policy terms in particular. It doesn't take much digging to get to other alternative news sites around the world that question the US narrative in deep and annotated terms. The US Right, lacking any imagination whatsoever except how to make money and put down all serfs but especially racialist minorities, merely prefer to embed utter nonsense by statute, so that their biases are there for all others to ponder. For now. Idaho. Hmm. Visted there once a quarter century ago, and the people seemed all right. Obviously potatoes have since fried their tiny minds. Texas and Florida, well hey, what can one expect? As an agnostic, anything to do with bible studies being treated as fact horrifies me. Might as well believe in magic. Organized religion with hierarchical structure and a textbook of fables I have zero time for, personally.

The one thing we have experienced in Canada in the past month is that we have not buried the effects of residential schools in official revisionism, but have exposed the truth to the general citizenry. About ten times over before now, but this time it may stick. Of course, I note that both Cons and some Libs have come to the table decrying the defacing of statues to past "very important people" who turn out to have been complete racists and poodles of the extremely wealthy. You wonder how newspaper op-eds of 100 to 140 years ago actually treated the PMs we had in their day-to-day performance as "leaders". Was anyone at all semi-awake? Or was it all colonialism for the win? So long as the Brits let us do it independently, of course. And that didn't happen till the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

Of course, when one thinks of whole country sponsored revisionism and memory law, and succeeding in even having lines in US employment contracts, Israel has managed to officially award itself the privilege of being uncriticizable there, or you lose your job. The illogic of anti-Israel-the-state criticism being officially interpreted as being anti-semite is the major revisionist coup of recent times. I can criticize our governments till the cows come home and get away with it, but decry Israeli action against its Arab citizens or show interest in the Palestinians, and I'm for the high jump. No wonder Atwin left the farce that is now the floundering Green Party or what's left of it.

Marie Snyder said...

Andy - I completely agree with facing our past head on. Without an authentic and complete knowledge of our past brought out into the open, any apology is inadequate and the past will keep calling out for redress.

Marie Snyder said...

Hi Bill - Yes, I think it might stick this time!! It's curious the number of times issues are raised and then fall to the gutters, huge numbers of MMIWG2S and even with the Truth and Reconciliation years! Tiny bodies in mass graves appears to be the kick in the gut necessary to activate people into understanding the atrocities that were committed and start to notice how they continue. It makes me a little hopeful that Canada can come to terms with it - maybe even stop running pipelines through unceded territory and provide access to clean water. But I don't know how the Israeli powers that be manage to continue maintaining such levels of rationalization and self-deception, or what it will take to get everyone to be shocked into the realization of what's going on enough to protest Canada's continued support.

The Disaffected Lib said...

In Texas, state Republicans managed to derail a presentation at a state history museum in Austin that would have explored the real cause of the rebellion that led to the Alamo battle.

The event was to discuss how it was Mexico's decision to abolish slavery that got white Texans to secede. No one was going to take away their slaves. Sort of like Texans and their AR-15s today. The governor, lieutenant-governor and House speaker forced the museum to cancel the event.


Marie Snyder said...

Fascinating bit of history!